Part of the Sex-Trafficking: A Parent's Guide to Protecting Your Child Series
Kim had no idea she was being groomed. Her friends introduced her to “Billy” a couple of months ago in an online chat room, and he was everything she wanted. He was nice and funny, and always there for her when she had a bad day or a fight with her parents.
When her parents gave her a cell phone for her 14th birthday, she thought nothing of sending Billy a picture of herself in her underwear. She used a special app on her phone that let her hide her conversations with him and the pictures they shared. Her parents didn’t ask or seem to care about her online activities. When Billy started sending pictures of his privates she was a little uncomfortable at first, but eventually got over it and reciprocated by sending him naked photos of herself. After all, they were in love. So when he said his parents were taking him on vacation in her city and he wanted to meet her at a local park, she thought it was the perfect opportunity to move the relationship forward.
At the park, she looked around anxiously for the 16-year-old boy whose face she knew so well from the pictures. But it wasn’t a 16-year-old boy that came up behind her and put his hand over her mouth, dragging her away.
Any child or teen can be vulnerable to being groomed into the sex-slave industry; but, some are more vulnerable than others due to their innocence and lack of awareness of the danger. Traffickers consisting of both men and women are experts at psychological manipulation and constantly on the lookout for new “product.”
With that in mind, it becomes easier to see why they stalk the areas where children are likely to be found. The prevalence of stories involving children who put themselves in dangerous situations through texting or chatting with an online “friend” is alarming. So much so, that one group produced a series of videos (here, here), showing how easy it can be to lure a child or teen into a dangerous situation. The video series, entitled “The Dangers of Social Media,” is emotionally intense, as parents watch their children step into potential danger, albeit in a controlled environment.
Even parents who have talked with their children about the dangers and risks of online relationships may later discover that their children have disregarded those warnings. So what are the options for parents seeking to protect their loved ones from the many snares of sex traffickers?
Be ‘Wise as Serpents’
One of the most difficult realities for parents, grandparents and caretakers to accept is that there is an industry of products created to deceive you regarding your child’s online activities. There are phone and computer applications whose sole purpose is to allow children to text, sext, and chat or engage in various activities without your knowledge. Even if you are diligent in regularly checking their phone or computer, there can be dangerous programs hidden in plain sight.
- Be Curious: As a parent, you know best when your child is ready to access today’s technology. It is a good idea to start them off with limited, closely-monitored computer and cell phone usage. Check the computer or phone for any new apps installed and stay informed as to what apps are dangerous.
- Be Aware of Dangerous Apps: If you see one of these applications on your child’s phone, tablet or computer, you should have a discussion with them about the dangers and consider uninstalling it immediately:
- INSTAGRAM®: Similar to Tumblr, but not quite as profane. Similar exposure potential exists.
- KIK MESSENGER: Messaging app that allows quick exchange of photos and information.
- POKE: Similar to Snapchat in that messages and images sent “self-destruct.”
- SNAPCHAT®: Messages, photos and videos sent through Snapchat disappear from the originating device within 10 seconds after being sent.
- TINDER®: Mainly used as a dating or anonymous hookup tool.
- TUMBLR®: A photo sharing app that has taken on a decidedly adult following and exposes its users to content that is pornographic or violent.
- WHISPER: This app’s purpose is to let people expose themselves to voyeurs, telling “secrets” and sharing images for others to view. It also shares its user’s physical location.
- YIK YAK: Social media app similar to Facebook; however, more commonly used by cyber-bullies and for quick hookups.
- Use Software To Help: One of the best ways to keep your children safe is to monitor their activity. Even when you can’t do it directly, a variety of software programs and firewalls exist specifically to help parents limit downloading apps, send notification to the parents of online activities and block a computer or phone’s access to potentially dangerous sites. It is possible to be aware of every text or chat message your child receives, every video they watch on YouTube® (where many are quite explicit) and control the hours of their online access.
- Show Me Your Friends: Sex traffickers target potential victims through their schools or in other child-rich environments, offering friendship and support to the child for a period before enticing them to run away or participate in their own abduction. Getting to know your child’s friends — from school, clubs and activities or those they chat with or speak to online — can be an important line of defense. Many parents offset risk by telling their kids that if any of their online friends want to meet, they will chaperone their child to the meeting place for the first few times. If the friend is legitimate, he/she should have no qualms about mom or dad coming to meet them.
If your older children already have established online habits and friendships, it may be difficult to institute new boundaries and rules for them. However, if every parent took a good look at their child’s digital devices, many would be surprised at what they found. It is better to be aware and safe, so ask about any suspicious activity sooner rather than later – when it could be too late. Remember, every sex trafficker wants your silence. They don’t want parents talking to their children or alerting them to potential dangers.
Be ‘Gentle As Doves’
One in five children is sexually solicited online, yet only 1 in 25 tells a parent or guardian about it. Talk to your kids in a manner that is age-appropriate and direct about the realities of the world they live in. Encourage them to be open and honest with you regarding their relationships. Taking time to talk to your kids about the dangers of sex trafficking and risk of abduction helps to train them in situational awareness and safety.
- For The Very Young: Basic ABCs of online safety, such as not revealing any passwords they may know and not discussing details about your family (city location, school name, etc.) with people they may meet online.
- For Preteens And Teens: Regular reminders not to give out potentially identifying information such as address, family composition or last name, school name, or landmarks (“I live right around the corner from Reagan Park”). Let your children know that there are dangerous people in the world and about the various ways general information they give out online could be used to pinpoint their location. Make sure your child feels safe talking to you about situations they may encounter online. Let them know that you are on their side and want to be informed if anyone bullies threatens or tries to convince them to do things that makes them uncomfortable. Stress that if something happens, they will not be in trouble for telling you. Another element to keep in mind is photographs of your child. As parents, you are the legal copyright owner of your child’s image. There are instances when a child’s photo is taken from social media and used inappropriately without the parent’s permission. Let your kids know that their photos are something you treasure and are not to be shared on social media or with friends without your permission. This is an important area of cyber-privacy and safety.
- For Teenagers: When gaining access to social media sites, phones and the full gamut of the Internet, remind teenagers that the world is not a safe place and their safety is your concern. Even with appropriate software, it’s important that teens remember smart phones and the Internet can be dangerous territory.
- If it is age appropriate, encourage your teenager to research sex trafficking to bring home the point that they are a prime target. Some may disregard the warnings and continue with their online presence as before but at least they will have some form of knowledge as a means of protection. Remind your teen that anything he or she sends to a friend or posts on social media is “out there” forever and could resurface at any time, like with a college or job application.
Guarding your family from the dangers of sex trafficking begins — but does not end — with your active involvement as a parent. Taking steps to reduce the risk of your children having an unfortunate online experience, or unwittingly befriending a pimp and experiencing their manipulation are just the first steps of defense.